Organ Donation and Families Overruling the Dead

I saw this article in the latest Bioedge, and it raised a couple of interesting points. My main interest personally is the ability of the family to overrule their deceased relatives decision to donate their organs.

One the one hand this seems to make sense. The relatives are the living people who can be affected by organ removal and so their wishes could be seen as the more important. However if we take this view then no individual can ever donate, and our concept of legal personhood would have to change, and it would always be up to surviving relatives to make the decision.

If on the other hand we can say that the deceased can carryover their interests then it should be impossible for the family to veto their donation, as the proposed change would bring about. This seems to be the most practical and legally sound approach in the current system. Families would then just have to accept that it is not their decision to donate or withhold organs.

The first option does make the most sense from a personhood based approach such as Derek Parfits. But if we acted on the basis that the deceased is no longer a person and so what happens to their body is a concern only for the living, then we would be best to adopt the first option above. However I believe that even with this approach the distress of the family (which is misplaced under a personhood approach as their relative is not harmed or wronged) is insufficient compared to the benefit of increased access to organs.

Consequently I think that system in which the medical profession can harvest organs from the deceased as and when they need them and find a suitable donor should be able to regardless of previous statements or family wishes. Families and society would just have to accept that the deceased are not harmed and the obsession with dead bodies that people have will have to become a more realistic attitude. I would contend that the benefits of increased organ availability demand nothing less.


One thought on “Organ Donation and Families Overruling the Dead

  1. Hello, Sam.

    I read your post with interest.

    It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I think I’m more willing than you are to respect apparently irrational beliefs. You’re in good company in your outlook, but for me there are a few steps between a rational normative perspective on a given (potential) policy’s end and the justification for its institution.

    To be clear, I think wherever someone stands on this question, it’s hard not to come across as a bit heartless.

    If you don’t respect grieving relatives – however strange their beliefs might seem – I think that’s pretty cold, really. I’d worry too about the professionals who you would want to have defying the bereaved family members.

    On the other hand, though, strong (including emotively strong) arguments can be made if we don’t encourage – or perhaps even enforce – a policy of posthumous ‘donation’. A failure there also leads to grief, pain, and loss of life after all!

    So it’s tough. But for me I’m not sure this is an area where there ought to be a hard legal position. And beyond that, I suspect in a more socio-legal type way that the law anyway would not have a great deal of bearing on practice.

    I would think that energy should be spent trying to inform the public about this issue. It seems here that actual agreement and willing is needed – and in most cases I should think it could be forthcoming.

    A policy that defies people’s deeply held views at a time of grief, ostensibly justified because it’s what they should want, seems too harsh to me.

    There we are.

    Happy new year, and all the best for 2012!

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